China Introduced Me to Int’l Workers Day, Which Has a Curious US Connection

For years, I’ve celebrated International Workers Day, May 1, here in China, an annual public holiday. But it was only recently that I learned the curious US connection — that in fact, the US labor movement prompted this holiday.

If you’re an American like me, accustomed to having Labor Day fall in September, this might come as a surprise to you too. Growing up, nobody educated me about the US history associated with the origin of International Workers Day.

Those of you who have studied the US labor movement probably recognize the 1886 Haymarket Affair, when a bomb exploded just as the police were breaking up a labor protest rally ignited by a nationwide push, which began May 1, for the eight-hour workday. Years later, at an international labor conference in Paris, an American delegate proposed setting aside May 1 as a day to remember this injustice. 

Today, almost every industrialized nation observes Labor Day on May 1 — except the US. According to the Illinois Labor History Society:

For years, half of the American Labor movement observed May 1 as Labor Day, while the other half observed the first Monday in September. After the Russian Revolution the May 1 date was mistakenly associated with communism, and in a protest against Soviet policy, May 1 was first proclaimed Law Day in the 1960’s.

It wasn’t until I came to China that I discovered “May Day” and “International Workers Day”. It remains among the most important holidays of the year, and many here use the opportunity to travel, gather with friends and enjoy the spring weather by going outdoors. 

What do you think about this? Are you surprised by the US connection to International Workers Day? Do you think Americans are missing out by celebrating Labor Day in September, instead of May, like here in China?